COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) -- The audience sensed a change at the top of U.S. women's figure skating, even if the judges and skaters did not.
Despite a superb free skate by fellow American Sarah Hughes, Michelle Kwan began the Olympic season Saturday night by winning Skate America for the sixth time. Her solid, but not spectacular, performance came minus longtime coach Frank Carroll, with whom she split this week.
''It's an athlete's job to analyze your own skating,'' Kwan said after finishing first with five of the seven judges -- the Hungarian and German voted for Hughes. ''Coaches can only tell you so much. It's also a feeling.''
U.S. men's champion Tim Goebel, who still is coached by Carroll, showed a vast improvement in his expressiveness in winning Saturday night. Skating to ''An American in Paris,'' Goebel also displayed his trademark jumping strength by hitting two quadruple salchows, one in combination.
But he was inconsistent, falling on a triple axel -- he also nailed one in combination -- and putting his hand to the ice on a triple flip.
Still, he swept all seven judges in beating Japan's Takeshi Honda.
''I think it was a good starting point for the season,'' Goebel said. ''I made a few little mistakes technically, but artistically, I'm performing at a much higher level than last year. So, overall, I was very pleased.''
Michael Weiss, the 1999 and 2000 U.S. champ who recovered from a seventh-place finish in a sloppy short program, wound up fourth. The other American, Matt Savoie, was sixth.
With her father, Danny, standing at the sideboards, but not offering any coaching tips, Kwan didn't appear lost on the ice. Of course, Carroll trained her well for nearly 10 years, guiding her to five U.S. championships, four world titles and the 1998 Olympic silver medal.
Kwan wasn't spotless, two-footing a triple loop and cutting a triple-triple combination to a triple-double. She also seemed a bit mechanical, as the program lacked some of the flair for which she is known.
But she did throw in a triple toe loop near the end of the performance, and her triple lutz 3:35 into the program was smooth, showing the high altitude and tumult of the past week wasn't bothering the 21-year-old Kwan.
''It felt good. I felt like I was ready for this competition, even though this week was a little crazy for me,'' Kwan said. ''It's been such a crazy month, I'm glad I was able to stand up and skate through it with confidence and power.
''That was a decent skate.''
The 16-year-old Hughes, who along with Russia's Irina Slutskaya figures to be Kwan's main challenge for the gold medal at Salt Lake City, was far better than decent. Hughes, third at worlds this year, hit every element, although her program was a tad slow. She had the crowd in her corner, and when the marks were displayed on the scoreboard, many fans booed.
Had Hughes ever done a better free skate?
''I don't think so,'' she said. ''It was definitely one of my strongest performances ever. Over the summer, I've become a much better skater.''
Hughes, the runner-up at the 2001 nationals to Kwan, hit six triple jumps and flowed gracefully in stamping herself as a strong challenger to Kwan. While it is very early in a long campaign, Hughes might have sent a message to Kwan: The gap has been narrowed.
She stopped short of saying she should have won. Her coach, Robin Wagner, did the same.
''My focus is on what are our goals for the event, and I couldn't be more satisfied,'' Wagner said.
Russia's Viktoria Volchkova was third.
American Sasha Cohen, coming off a back injury that sidelined her last season, was prepared to do a quadruple salchow. No women has done a quad in competition, and Cohen didn't come close Saturday, popping the jump as soon as she got airborne.
Cohen missed several other elements and finished fifth.
''I was really nervous and I tried hard, but it wasn't a good skate for me,'' she said.
Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz swept the event, hardly uncommon in ice dancing. Their free dance, spiced with Michael Jackson tunes, was a bit tame for the Canadians, particularly in an Olympic year.
Americans Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto were fifth, skating to a tribute to Sarajevo.
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